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French Milk by Lucy Knisley

Posted on | July 1, 2010 | 19 Comments

If you read any of the same blogs as I do then you may recall seeing French Milk mentioned on a number of them.  The first review I recall seeing was this one by JoAnn of Lakeside Musing last year; I immediately coveted the book, thinking that it looked and sounded enchanting, and ever since I have been tempted by more and more reviews.  Finally I succumbed and bought a copy.  I started to read it immediately after it arrived, thinking that a charming read set in Paris would alleviate my melancholia following my cat’s death; five pages in and a cat died (quite the graphic description of its dead body; not surprising for a graphic novel, I know, but this also came with illustration of a cat with angel wings and a photograph).  I was blindsided and shelved the book until June, when I felt stronger and could move past those two pages.  Yesterday I read another book where a pet cat died… I think books should come with public service announcements “beware reading if you are mourning the loss of your feline”; the only book I knew for certain to avoid was Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.  In lieu of such specifics on book-jackets, I am providing the PSA: DO NOT READ THIS IF YOUR CAT HAS DIED ONLY A FEW DAYS BEFORE.

Anyway, touchy subject excluding, I greatly enjoyed French Milk.  In this graphic travel memoir, Lucy Knisley records the six weeks she and her mother spend in Paris in late 2006/early 2007 to celebrate milestone birthdays for them both (Lucy’s 22nd and her mother’s 50th).  Part diary/photo journal/sketchbook, Lucy writes, illustrates and photographs their experience; the overall effect is of a personal, made-at-home document.  The travelogue follows Lucy and her mother as they explore and discover Paris, from the apartment -with quirky features- that they have rented in the 5th arrondissement, the oldest area in Paris and one of the more central, situated on the Left Bank.  For beginners to the graphic novel medium, French Milk, is accessible with one-panel drawings that don’t overwhelm; think of it as an illustrated novel, if you prefer.

Lucy’s memoir is deeply personal and documents her relationship with her mother as they share this once-in-a-lifetime experience; the conflict between making the most of such a wonderful opportunity and missing her boyfriend, John; her struggle to come to terms with the inevitability of adulthood. On the cusp of graduating from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago a few months later and in the process of applying to the Center of Cartoon Studies, Lucy faces her fears of financial responsibility, of failure and of the inability to find employment after her studies and the less-immediate terror of what lies beyond; as a young woman in her late twenties I empathise with the emotions Lucy experienced in her early ones.  The journal encapsulates that transition between adolescence and adulthood, the resistance it causes, and the stark reminder of all we still have to achieve and those things we have not that our birthdays often serve as; at times self-indulgent, it is recognisably realistic.  Knisley encapsulates her experience in minute detail so that the reader begins to feel that they are there sharing the apartment with her and her mother (along with other occasional visitors) and experiencing Paris as she experienced it.

As an artist, Lucy visits and journals about most of the Parisian museums, art galleries and exhibitions but she and her mother also shop and do an abundance of eating; the title, French Milk, refers to the author’s love for the distinctive  creamy milk only available in France.  As a foodie, I loved the descriptions and illustrations of rich food, especially of the Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macarons (even though Knisley refers to them as “cookies”, I recognised the drawings of one of my preferred indulgences).  Highlights for me were the visits made to two Paris landmarks beloved to me: Shakespeare & Co. for their books and Café Angelina for their famous hot chocolate; moreover, I enjoyed the section spent visiting Oscar Wilde’s grave, which epitomised Lucy’s passionate nature.

Having visited Paris for the first time one winter, I was nostalgic for that visit and that time (I was just a year older than Lucy, at the same stage in my academic career). Knisley’s memoir of travel, food, art, and life has intensified my desire to revisit; when I do, I will ensure that I pack French Milk to reread and to use as a creative and personal guidebook.

Paris in July is a French-themed blogging experience being co-hosted by Karen of BookBath and Tamara of Thyme for Tea throughout July and this is my first contribution towards the challenge.


19 Responses to “French Milk by Lucy Knisley”

  1. Beth
    July 1st, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    Hello! Just wanted to let you I received my copy of The Passion of New Eve last week. Don’t worry about the delay – meant it felt like a surprise! Thank you so much!

    French Milk sounds charming and I’m quite tempted to give it a go myself now!

  2. Claire (The Captive Reader)
    July 1st, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    French Milk was the very first graphic book I read and what an excellent introduction to the form! My first visit to Paris was also in the middle of winter (though I was a year younger than Lucy when I went) and, based on all the other memoirs I’ve read, it really does feel like there’s a much different tone to the city depending on the time of year you’re there (like most places). I though Knisley did a wonderful job writing about the food – for me that was what made the book really shine.

  3. Verity
    July 1st, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    This sounds charming and wonderful – I hadn’t seen it on a blog before. Unfortunately it’s not one in my library, it sounds like perfect holiday reading too. Oh well, remind me of it should I ever get to go to Paris!

  4. JoAnn
    July 1st, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Oh, no… the beginning of French Milk would be horrible under those circumstances!! Glad you could enjoy it after a little more time had passed. I still think that is one of the most creative travel journals ever.

  5. Amanda
    July 1st, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    yay I’m glad you liked it, though I can understand why you needed to put it off for awhile. I read this *right* before our cat had to be put to sleep.

  6. Audrey
    July 1st, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    Oh, I just saw this on the sale table in my local bookstore…I was resisting adding another French travel memoir to my collection, but now I think I’ll take a walk down and pick it up!

  7. Darlene
    July 1st, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    My other border collie passed away during my reading of the fifth Harry Potter book and I have yet to pick up the sixth. That was almost three years ago.

    JoAnn’s copy of French Milk went to Book Psmith who enjoyed it and then sent it on to me! It’s still waiting for me to get around to it.

  8. Karen
    July 1st, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    What a wonderful review of this book Claire! I read it last year just before we went to Paris for the first time and loved it. I was a bit disturbed by the death of her cat early on though too – even though my fluffy boy is still with us it shook me a little so I can understand how difficult it would have been for you to read at that time.

  9. Iris
    July 2nd, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    I need a good introduction to the graphic novel genre and this sounds like a perfect place to start.

  10. Nadia
    July 2nd, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    What a great way to kick off Paris in July! I love the sound of this book. I’ve never read a graphic novel before, but I’m thinking that this one will wind up being my first. Thanks for the great review!

  11. Reebcca
    July 3rd, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    I have had this on my wish list for some time now. Paris is one of my favourite cities! Actaully I am going there in 3 weeks so I might try to pick this up in time for my trip. It might be good to read it while I’m actually there. Thanks for the review – it sounds even more delightful now!

  12. Stephanie
    July 3rd, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    This was the first graphic novel I ever read and I loved it–so charming!

  13. Dominique
    July 4th, 2010 @ 2:50 am

    This sounds absolutely wonderful! I must get a copy. Thanks for your review. :)

  14. Teresa (Lovely Treez Reads)
    July 4th, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    I love all things French (being a retired French teacher helps!) so I must add this to my TBR list immediatement…

  15. Danielle
    July 5th, 2010 @ 1:50 am

    I bought this after Iliana/Bookgirl mentioned it on her blog and it has been sitting in a stack of books ever since. I love the idea of graphic novels and have a few sitting around, but for some reason I tend not to pick them up. I need to dig this one out I can see–it really does sound delightful–barring the poor deceased cat, which would bother me in any case!

  16. Bellezza
    July 5th, 2010 @ 3:11 am

    First, I totally agree with you that books should come with warnings to those who are in bereavement…cats, lovers, youth, whaterever is lost. Sometimes novels can help assuage the pain, but not until sufficient time has passed, n’est ce pas?

    Then, I think this book would be a perfect gift for my own dear mother. I think I saw it first on Bermuda Onion’s blog, but I loved your review as well.

  17. LizF
    July 5th, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    It sounds a lovely book but one I will avoid for the moment as I lost my beloved Maine Coon last week after he suddenly developed feline asthma.
    As for your mum’s 50th birthday: I turned 50 last year and not being a party person either, celebrated with a trip to Italy with my husband and teenagers. Spent my birthday wandering around Siena which was bliss.

  18. Tamara
    July 7th, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    I’ve never read a graphic novel, so this looks like a great one to start with – on a subject close to my heart.

  19. French Milk by Lucy Knisley | Coffee Stained Pages
    August 20th, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    [...] Paperback Reader [...]

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